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Gem (and Grammy) Collecting

15 Jun 2011
Grammy award winning music producer and engineer 'Bassy' Bob Brockmann shares some of his lessons learned and future thinking with Ande Schurr.

Grammy award winning music producer and engineer 'Bassy' Bob Brockmann shares some of his lessons learned and future thinking with Ande Schurr.

Bob talks about engaging an audience, the role of music and succeeding in the industry.

"There are many pathways to success and there's no formula for success."

* * *

I met Bob at the album release party for Erakah and Vince. His kids live in Auckland so he found himself a job in NZ to be near them, well sort of - he's teaching music production to the very fortunate students at Invercargill's Southern Institute of Technology (SIT). He still has his roots in New York but he's a big fan of the NZ music industry and is increasing his exposure on the ground in Auckland and other cities when his time allows.

The music industry has strong parallels to the film industry. It has a similar freelance structure for crew and artists and there are a few big companies and lots of independents. However, just like the film industry, people can get lost in the world of making their first album. Without money but plenty of ambition, they set out to 'blow up' onto the world stage as Bob would say, yet, without an understanding of the forces at play, success is unlikely.

This interview offers a slice into the life of a leading producer and will benefit those seeking to have a career in music.

"Producers are gem collectors. You're listening to performances, you're listening to parts, you're listening to ideas, you hear something that strikes your fancy and you have to be sensitive and awake enough at the time when you hear it to be able to pay attention - to notice when something great comes across and go "wait, hold on a second, play that back". Great producers are not necessarily great artists, they're great collectors."

Your motto is innovate or die. Please explain.

I actually think it should be iterate or die. Meaning, get to the next revision of whatever it is you're doing. It's the motto of Apple computers and software developers and it should have been the motto of the music industry 10 years ago before all the record stores closed. I think it's vital to have a keen eye on consumer behaviour, paying close attention and adapting to it. If people aren't going to record stores anymore and 97 percent of the population are listening to music on Youtube then probably Youtube is the place you need to be if you're an artist.

If you're a music producer and you're trying to figure out the best business model of how you're going to roll your music out that might give you ... you spend a considerable amount of money to make what you think is an iconic record at a very very high level creatively and sonically and you give it away, practically give it away. Case in point was Kids of 88 - they gave away 15 thousand records as part of their promotional campaign to actually push their music out there. The end result is that they got global reach and critical attention all over the world including the USA - they played a show at CMJ (College Music Journal's Music Marathon) and sold out.

So I think that's incumbent on the managers and artists that are working in this new kind of paradigm to think about other ways of engaging the audience. Obviously social networking is going to be a really big part of how that happens. Artists are not living in Ivory Towers any longer, they're accessible on twitter, facebook and frequently managing their own person profiles and people are checking in and asking them questions every day and they're responding to them. I think it would be very very difficult for an artist who wanted to live in a bubble to be successful in today's climate. If you're not socially engaged, the expectation that a corporation or a label or some kind of representative is going to handle all that for you would be unrealistic.

A lot of my philosophy about where I see the future of music going is based on personal experience and a lot of observation, reading blogs and the work of forward thinking people - like Malcolm Gladwell and others who have a keen take on what is happening in the industry right now.

What is a music producer and an audio mixer?
Music producing is like film directing - you're the creative force behind the album. It's very different from film producing which is more of an executive, economic role.

The audio mixer is like the orchestra conductor, you're deciding exactly what the placement of everything will be. Where everything will be panned, what gets reverb, what gets delayed, how things will be equalised and compressed.

Mixing is letting the audience know what they should be focusing their attention on. The big drum sound, the big vocal performance, pneumonics or hook ideas that are bubbling on the side. It's a special and precious job to have that responsibility of how a piece of music or a  production will be presented for the listening audience. It's certainly not a solo job. It is always a collaboration.

What factors, both intentional and good fortune, contributed to your Grammy awards (more than 30 nominations, and two wins)?

Certainly a Grammy award is a high achievement but you can't remove the monetary, marketing and political factors from how that actually takes place. I would say that most of the projects I've been nominated for a Grammy or fortunate enough to win, were very very highly commercially successful records that had received an enormous amount of PR, marketing and push from their labels way before they were nominated and ultimately won a Grammy. So it's a popularity contest. It's not that different from the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences that gives out the Oscars. The difference is that there is more room in the Oscars for independent films, particularly for the documentaries. The Grammy's are much more stacked in terms of which records actually win. I would like to think a number of projects I work on that are not as commercially successful as Craig Franklin or Christina Aguilera or Babyface or any of the artists that I've worked with, it would be very hard for those records to get to the top of the stack to get noticed enough.

There is a two stage nominating process in the Grammys - roughly 250 entrants make it into the first round, then there's five - then there's a winner. Certainly there's always an element of luck. I've certainly been luckier than most as far as that is concerned. There's a natural cream rising to the top factor. If you're doing good work, if you're attracting the attention of people on high level projects, and you get involved in a high level projects and it blows up and gets success and is critically acclaimed as Christina Aguilera's Mi Reflejo, there's a good chance that it's going to have a shot at winning. So I would never attribute my Grammy awards to only my personal gifts as a mixer or talent as a producer. There are so many other factors involved.

What keeps you solid in this very personality-driven industry?

As a facilitator and support person I'm behind the glass, not typically in front of the camera. I don't seek out the limelight. There are plenty of producers who are media hounds, I'm not one of them. I think that it's good to have a healthy amount of visibility and notoriety because it is a relationship and personality game. For me I'm trying to go to parties in Auckland and trying to socialise and be out there and let people know I'm in town. It's the nature of my business. Anyone whose in any kind of social business - be they a manager or a PR person or camera person - it's good to be out and about, in the public eye to some extent. There really is no such thing as bad publicity.  I try to keep my visibility as sustainable as I can. I'm not really looking to get into the scandal rags. It doesn't really fit my personality. That kind of notoriety is more reserved for artists.

What is the role of music in the world?

I think that music is as important now as it's ever been throughout history. Music has played an essential role in culture for hundreds of years. People have been making music together and singing songs together with each other for a long long time. The role of how music fits into people's lives has obviously shifted radically. For thousands of years music was almost exclusively a religious thing - writing music for God instead of man. And now bit by bit it segued into the romantic era of music where people were getting to write more about the connection of music to nature.

If you look at the writing of Ravel and Debussy or any of the impressionistic composers I think moving into the 20th century music really became a central part, pop music, starting out with the Blues and segueing into Dixieland Jazz and all of the kinds of music that evolved out of the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans. It became a companion to people's daily lives. Even if the remotest part of the United States in the mid 19th century during the gold rush, there was somebody that had a guitar or a harmonica or able to play a little song on the piano. It's interesting how it comes in waves. We had a fairly long run after WWII where people were almost exclusively consumers of music. Starting 1946-1947 well into the year 2000 the idea of a member of the family providing entertainment for the other members in the living room almost disappeared with the advent of the television, the radio - all the major forms of broadcast media. Now, what you have is the entrepreneur spirit of the individual coming back in the form of Apple's Garage Band, Logic - all of these tools.

One of the downsides of the availability of the technology to everybody is that we have a lot of really bad music out there. 95-96 percent of the stuff released on My Space or any of the self-publishing web formats for music is not particularly good. It's not that there's less good music then there was ten years ago or twenty years ago but it's just that you hear more of it because people are self-publishing.

In the old days people would submit their demo to the label, the demo would get rejected and unless they were really really persistent, chances are they wouldn't get a deal and they'd just move on to another job. Now, every bedroom song-writer or musician wants to record music and put it onto youtube. there are billions of them. Not everyone can be Rebecca Black, right?! That's an interesting story unto itself. How something so dumb and lowbrow can actually go viral and become five times as popular as Lady Gaga. It really shows how the tables have turned. The corporate music companies are not really the gate keepers any longer. That was a personal project that was funded by her parents, and just blew up and become the latest phenomenon since Justin Beaver.

How did Rebecca Black get 160 million youtube views?

Her parents gave her a record deal with this for-hire production company called 'Ark Media' for her 13th birthday. They produced the song, produced the video and then I think her parents put up a large sum of money to push out youtube views. Arc Media bought three million youtube views on behalf of her parents who were funding the project. It could have gone any number of ways. They could have bought three million youtube views and it could have died the next day, I think what happened was that because she has this innocent smiley girl next door, unpretentious nature - and because the lyrics were just so inanely stupid to the song, it became a freakish viral storm that raged through the internet. It wouldn't have gone from three million views to 160 million if people didn't want to share it. A big part of the success of Rebecca Black is that people got to wink and say "hey, I'm in on this", check this out, isn't this insane? There is certainly a lot of instances of artists who have gone this way.

Has the music industry lost its soul if it's just about Youtube hits?

There's always going to be two kinds of music - mass media entertainment which is the most popular game on Xbox or video on youtube or single on the radio. Of course mass media doesn't always mean low quality. In many cases, if it's radio head or the Beetles or another high-brow act mass media can be very high quality. If it's a Seal record produced by Trevor Horn it's the epitome of great production and song writing.

I think it's gained its soul. There is an enormous amount of really soulful music and I think when you remove the multi million dollar deal that's come from the bidding war that's actually culled a lot of people out of the game that got into the game to make a lot of money. The truth of the matter is that almost no one is getting rich in the music business now but there is an awful lot of music being created these days - and it's being created for the right reasons. Very much the same reasons that people like Jim Jarmusch choose to do their films independently produced as opposed to going with the big studio and having to make another baseball or hockey movie.

Music is such an important part of the intellectual growth and development of young people. That's why it's abysmal that most American schools have wiped it from their curriculum. It's been proven that children exposed to music and music composition at an early age have tested much higher on intelligence tests and do better academically. So I'm a big proponent of that. I don't think the soul has gone from music - it's more soulful than ever - maybe the money has gone because the labels have done a very very bad job at steering the ship. In the wake of the disaster that the major labels have a created, there are all of these upstart internet companies and initiatives, positions and bands that have taken the place of that and are much more egalitarian and democratic than the music industry ever was.

Rebecca Black probably represents a segment of the population that are engaged in music on a day to day basis. It's more wallpaper for them. They get pushed a Rebecca Black video, they're at their office, they think it's funny and push it to someone else. The music business has always been like that. There's always been a 10-15% segment of the music business looking for the newest and the coolest bands. Nothing has changed; it's exactly the same demographic. They are maybe being serviced in different ways, maybe reading music blogs or using the search engines like or or so maybe the discovery process is a little bit different.

An overseas producer is much more likely to bump up against a NZ band now days because previously the geographic isolation of NZ has gone. I was talking to an artist that I was working with today about a scrappy upstart UK band called Mumford and Sons. They have probably one one-thousandth the marketing budget of Katy Perry yet they've outsold Katy Perry so what does that say about quality? That just turns the whole paradigm of labels delivering quality on it's head because people have obviously shared their music with other people, it's folksy music which is similar to that created in NZ with ukulele and banjo and acoustic guitars and romantic folk songs. But now is the time when it might be possible for NZ bands to break internationally because a lot of those barriers to becoming global have disappeared.

What would a music student do to break into the music industry?

There are many pathways to success and there's no formula for success. A lot of guys, who moved to New York and starting working in the power station or the hit factory, started out thinking "wow, if I just work on big projects then they will blow up and become successful’ but they ended up becoming career assistants for 10,15, 20 years. I think to become successful in the music business requires a certain kind of insane gutsiness to actually go after situations where you have no way of knowing if it's going to be a winning situation. With my first hit with Debbie Gibson, I had been going to the producers house every Saturday for six months working with him for free because he was Madonna's keyboard player and I just saw that as a potential 'in' to the industry. As it turned out he never produced anything for Madonna, I never worked with Madonna but he ultimately ended up working with Debbie Gibson and he wrote a hit with her called 'Only in my dreams' and I mixed it one Saturday for fifty dollars in his house and three months later it was number 2 on the pop charts. I couldn't have possibly predicted that but my hit-stick told me that he must be connected.

The rule of thumb is ‘hitch your wagon to a star’, find a successful producer, successful studio or success artist - become invaluable to that person and you might well become successful yourself. There are obviously a lot of ways into that kind of paradigm. It's a social business and a relationship business. It actually required as much hard work, if not more, than any industry there is.

The first ten years of my freelance mixing career I was working almost seven days a week and in many days working 16 hours a day, barely sleeping. Typically, when you get hired to mix a record, the second you get into the studio and start working on the record, the clock is ticking. Every day is costing 2500 to the studio. You're usually paying lock out rates to get into the room, so there's the expectation that you will prostrate yourself and bust your balls until the record gets done. A lot of the time the record has a constrained budget even though its a multi million selling act, the labels are always trying to save money in every conceivable way they can and if they can save a little bit of money by turning the mixing engineer into a total slave then they will do it. Most mixers that I know have put up with a lot of exhaustion.

I think the film business is similar. You have 'x' number of shoot days, you shoot 5.30am till midnight, it's very similar and is another twist on how the entertainment business works. There's enormous effort just the mix an album. I've mixed hundreds of albums, thousands of songs in my career and I'm still doing it. I'm down here at SIT teaching all day then recording all evening into the night. I think like most young people, they have an idea what they want to do but it's incumbent on them to figure out what their pathway is going to be.

Many people have become successful because they're in the right place at the right time. They were with a young band when they blew up and the band took them with them. There are many producers who made it that way. Other producers started out interning under some famous producer like Quincy Jones and bit by bit they got closer to being put on because the people meeting them in that social circle realised that, well maybe they couldn't afford Quincy but they could afford Quincy's assistant and they would figure that a lot of what Quincy knows, Quincy's assistant would know. That's how I got on. A lot of mixers who got me on my first gigs would get called to California to do a record for 3 months and the client was still in New York and needed somebody to work with - 'oh why don't you check out Bob, he's been working with me for a while'.

How do you get famous as an artist?

The onus is on the artist to have high quality songs and to be a good singer. That really comes into the realm of artist development. Some singers just come out of the gate, 17-18 years old, really amazing. Prince was such an example who was already mature by the time he was 18-19 years old. When he got signed to Warner Bros they set him up at Sunset Sound at LA and Lenny Wanaka, who was head of Warner Bros at the time, peeked his head in the door, saw what Price was doing - he had all his Oberheim synthesisers and his guitars and bass setup and he was doing everything by himself including engineering the project and Lenny was like "hey, the kid doesn't need a producer, he knows what he's doing".

So there are people, through sheer innate talent don't need much training on the other hand there are a lot of artists who need, as Malcolm Gladwell said 'put their ten thousand hours in'. The Beatles famously did 1200 gigs in Hamburg before they broke onto the scene in the clubs in Liverpool. That's an enormous amount of practice. This promoter went to London, he wanted to get some bands from London to play in the strip clubs in Hamburg, and the guy he was meeting never showed up so he followed another contact in Liverpool, the guy happened to know the Beetles, he plugged those guys. They got the job and had to sometimes play for 6-7 hours straight at the club. They had to learn jazz, covers, Elvis, Johnny Cash, and that's how they got to be so damn good. It wasn't an instantaneous thing. They didn't just wake up one day amazing artists, they became that way. That trajectory has to happen one way or another.

What is the state of the NZ music industry.

I love the music scene in NZ. I've been following it for a long time because I was married to a kiwi for seven years. It's something I've followed from afar starting ten years ago when I first heard Bic Runga and other famous NZ artists.

I've recently come across Dirty Records and Illegal Records. It's very competitive and every bit as interesting as the American hip-hop scene. Of course it's smaller  - the whole world of the NZ music industry is confined to small tightly knit groups in places such as Wellington and Dunedin, Auckland, Invercargill. There are hundreds of thousands of artists in every conceivable genre just in New York - it's sometimes overwhelming. There are over 40 pages of gigs in the local newspaper. There's a comfortableness with the Auckland music scene, which I'm just discovering. Everybody knows everybody. I'm already starting to actively be involved in the scene here, with mixing and producing.

Further information:

Bob has had more than 30 Grammy nominations, a win for his work as an engineer on Kirk Franklin’s 'Nu Nation' and a Latin Grammy for Christina Aguilera’s album 'Mi Reflejo'. For more information see his website.

Bob will be in studio with The Checks for five weeks starting June 25.